I reach for another cold, succulent Kumamoto oyster. It sits there taunting me, glistening in its cup-like shell over crushed ice. I have already consumed about three dozen of its brothers, all in a quest to determine which of 20 wines work best with them. Only a few more wines to go, but I feel as if I am reaching capacity.
I slurp the oyster, chew it well to make its flavor fill my mouth, and lift the glass coded R to my lips. The bright, juicy white wine strikes a wonderful balance of refreshing fruit, acidity and clean flavors. A bit of lime, a bit of passion fruit, a smidge of green apple, and it does what a great oyster wine should do. It not only scrubs my palate clean, it leaves a zingy impression of its own. The wine's flavors and the oyster's minerality combine to wake up my palate. The fatigue of the moment has passed and all I want is another bite of oyster and sip of the wine.
This explains why it has taken me more than three dozen oysters to get through 17 of the 20 wines. I just can't help it. I love oysters and zippy, palate-prodding wines. That's why I could not resist when Jon Rowley, the seafood marketing guru who organizes the Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition, invited me to join the judging. I had done it once before, but for the first time in several years I am not traveling in late April.
"Not many wines go with oysters," Rowley tells the 10 of us gathered at a meeting room next to One Market restaurant in San Francisco, which is hosting the mid-afternoon tasting. "That is why we started doing this thing."
This is the 12th annual competition. It started in Seattle as a promotion for oysters from Taylor Shellfish Farms in Shelton, WA, which grows some of the finest bivalves on the planet in pristine waters off Puget Sound. At first there were only Washington wines in the running. Over the years, Rowley added Oregon, Idaho, British Columbia, and finally California to the mix. For years, the Northwest wines dominated the competition, but it's telling that California has taken over in recent years. I think it's because enough wineries have adjusted their wine styles to make better matches with oysters.
|The face off: Which wine can stand up to these bivalves?|
A significant number of California wineries have moved toward a fresh, crisp approach that does not rely on oak to give all their white wines their flavor. Most of us who love oysters and wine agree that oak is no friend of an oyster. The range of wines in the tasting includes two Oregon Pinot Gris and 18 wines from California: 13 Sauvignon Blancs, 2 Pinot Grigios, a Pinot Grigio-Chardonnay blend, an unoaked Chardonnay, and a "dry" Chenin Blanc.
Preliminary judges in Seattle spent five afternoons whittling the 154 wines submitted down to the 20 in front of us, absorbing more than 1,200 oysters in the process. "Five people show up every day at 3 and go through 30 wines," Rowley notes. "They show no fear. They come in and keep going."
No surprise that Sauvignon Blanc dominates the final list. My favorite wine with oysters is a fresh, citrusy Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. As far as I am concerned, the closer you can get to that ideal, the better, and I was amazed and pleased at how many California SBs shared those characteristics.
Washington entered 25 wines, none of which made it past the prelims. My guess is that recent warm vintages have taken some of the acidity out of Washington's Sauvignon Blancs. The Sémillons are too soft, Chadonnays too oaky and Rieslings generally too sweet. Oregon submitted 24 wines, but most of its Pinot Gris finds a soft style. The four British Columbia wines and one Idaho wine also crapped out early.
Kenwood Sauvignon Blanc Sonoma Valley 2005 won the day on my scorecard. Kenwood is one of those California wines that has moved to a zippier, more vibrant syle, and it pays off if you want to wash down an oyster with it. Bright and zingy, it has the same sort of passion fruit and lime character that makes Marlborough SBs so good, and that plays off an oyster's minerality perfectly, refreshing through the finish.
(That was Wine R, mentioned above. Prices for all these wines were not provided and most are too new to have been reviewed by Wine Spectator.)
Blackstone Pinot Grigio 2005 got my attention for the way its richness wraps around an oyster. It sports a grapefruit character but lacks the acidity to cleanse. But who cares? These taste great together. Apparently the other judges agreed. My top four choices all made it into the winner's circle as chosen by the remaining panelists.
After that, however, we experienced some serious disagreement. The other judges somehow honored Kathryn Kennedy Sauvignon Blanc 2005, my least favorite wine for the pairing. It tasted like sour candy to me next to the oysters. I am still trying to figure out how Dry Creek Dry Chenin Blanc 2005, which tasted sweet after all those crisp Sauvies, got enough votes to win.
We all seemed to get behind Kelson Creek Sauvignon Blanc 2005, however. The wine cleanses well, but has little charcter of its own except for a pleasantly fruity aftertaste. This should please those who want to savor the oyster and not pay a lot of attention to what the wine does. The team and I also liked Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc 2005, which has the right zing of acidity and an herbal cast to the flavors, and Wattle Creek Sauvignon Blanc 2004, which could only do better if it had more acidity.
The rest of the group did not go along with my choices of Cline Cellars Pinot Grigio-Chardonnay 2005 and Winter's Hill (OR) Pinot Gris 2005. I can understand why. The Cline's soft texture and broad structure would seem to be wrong, but this actually feels pretty good. Different, but it works. Simple and refreshing, the Winter's Hill sets up some wonderful counterpoints with the minerality of the oysters, even if it's not quite zingy enough to clean the palate.
See, I can be tolerant of different styles, even if, left to my own devices, I'll grab the nearest Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc for my next platter of oysters. Or Kenwood.
Jeffrey Ghi — New York — April 28, 2006 4:30pm ET
Chris Lavin — Long Beach, CA — April 28, 2006 4:46pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — April 28, 2006 6:09pm ET
Kevin Lewis — West Palm, Florida — April 29, 2006 9:42am ET
Ron Raich — baltimore — May 1, 2006 1:19pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — May 1, 2006 1:50pm ET
Alex G Bardsley — Washington, DC — May 2, 2006 12:50am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — May 2, 2006 6:01pm ET
Ron Raich — baltimore — May 5, 2006 4:37pm ET
Pam Lindquist — Cohasset,MA. — May 9, 2006 12:31pm ET
John Miller — Windsor, CA — October 10, 2007 3:14pm ET
Dave Fortna — Sacramento, CA, USA — October 10, 2007 3:39pm ET
David Greenstein — Phila,Pq — October 10, 2007 8:17pm ET
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